Fear not the future
Are you ready for a Mustang with a really big battery? On January 3, 2017, Ford CEO Mark Fields stopped by the company’s Flat Rock, Michigan, assembly plant, which builds the pony car, to announce that Ford would offer a hybrid version in 2020. A hybrid F-150 pickup is also in the works.
Ford’s two most iconic models are going semi-electric? Fuel economy regulations have basically forced the issue, but Ford promises that the hybrid Mustang will offer power comparable to the current GT (435 horsepower), yet with even more low-end torque than that model’s fabulous 5.0-liter Coyote V-8 can muster.
Fields did not describe the hybrid Mustang’s powertrain in detail, but with the V-6 now absent from the pony car’s lineup for 2018, it’s probably a safe guess that the hybrid will combine a version of the turbocharged 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-banger with an electric motor. The hybrid Mustang will be fast, and it will use a lot less fuel than the V-8. It just won’t sound like much.
The future always happens
Some Hagerty readers commenting on Ford’s news expressed dismay. A Mustang needs a V-8, they said. Others chimed in that for performance to survive, it must adapt. They pointed to the Porsche 918 Spyder, McLaren P1, and Ferrari LaFerrari, all insanely fast exotic sports cars, as prime examples of what a hybrid powertrain can do.
Consider, too, that in February, Motor Trend clocked a Tesla P100D at 0-60 mph in 2.28 seconds—among the quickest of any current production car.
Like it or not, the future of high-performance cars will involve electrons. It’s a good time to remember that, throughout automotive history, there have been “disruptors” that altered the path of performance evolution, yet not without meeting with some resistance from the faithful.
Chevrolet small-block V-8
Hot-rodding emerged from cheap speed, and for the kids turning junkyard jalopies into hot rods in the 1940s and ’50s, there was no cheaper, easier source to work with than the Ford “flathead” V-8. A substantial aftermarket grew up around Ford’s iron lump and helped launch the sport of drag racing.
All that changed in 1955, when Chevrolet introduced its new lightweight V-8. A new generation of overhead-valve V-8s had been streaming from Detroit since Cadillac and Oldsmobile introduced their new post-war engines for 1949. Chrysler’s first-gen Hemis, introduced two years later, would also make their mark in competition.
Innovations that simplified the Chevy V-8 and made it less expensive to manufacture also allowed it to be easily modified for greater performance. At Chevrolet, Belgian-born engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov pushed for a performance-parts program, and before long, the Ford flathead receded into history. In The Beach Boys’ 1963 hit song “Little Deuce Coupe,” they sang about a flathead-powered hot rod being “the fastest set of wheels in town.” It must have been a town without Chevys.
Mechanical fuel injection made the jump from aviation to automobiles in the 1950s in the exotic Mercedes-Benz 300SL sports car. It made an even bigger jump into the affordability realm when Chevy offered Rochester mechanical fuel injection on its 283-cubic-inch V-8 in the Corvette and other models. (Chevy called the system Ramjet.) Pontiac added it to the limited-production 1957 Bonneville, as well. The fuelies were fast, but when dealership and independent techs couldn’t keep the system working properly, customers complained and had it swapped for a carburetor intake.
AMC promoted a new Bendix Electrojector electronic fuel injection system for the 1957 Rambler Rebel but built only a handful of pre-production prototypes before nixing the system in favor of a carburetor. Chrysler, however, pressed ahead with the Electrojector system as an option for some 1958 models. It was a disaster. The company pulled the plug on this troublesome system after selling only three dozen cars. The idea was sound, but the electronics of the day weren’t up to the task of keeping it working. Bosch, the German auto supplier, bought the patents, and by the early 1970s its Jetronic electronic fuel injection (EFI) systems were proliferating in European cars.
Chevy dropped fuel injection from the Vette in 1965, but its oddball 1975 Cosworth Vega had a Bendix EFI system. Still, it seemed like muscle car enthusiasts would never give up their carburetors—at least not yet.
The need to squeeze more fuel economy out of every engine—even big pickup trucks and Ferraris—has made turbocharging ubiquitous today. But the technology has traveled a long and tumultuous road. Along the way, turbos have had their share of detractors.
General Motors got there first with the 1962 Chevy Corvair Monza Spyder and Oldsmobile Jetfire. Turbocharging was seen as getting “free” horsepower from spent exhaust gases, but “free” actually came with a price. The Corvair worked pretty well if properly maintained, but the Olds was pure mechanical mayhem. Enthusiasts weren’t sold on the idea and remained loyal to big-cube engines for power.
It would be a long time before GM would try turbocharging in passenger cars again. BMW gave turbocharging a shot in 1972 with the 2002 Turbo, a model not imported to the U.S., but it was the Porsche 911 Turbo, introduced in the U.S. for 1976, that put the spotlight on this power-adder once again. The Turbo, with its 5-second 0-60-mph sprint, was like a visitor from outer space promising a brighter performance future.
With its famous 99 Turbo in 1977 (becoming the 900 Turbo the following year), Saab brought turbocharging closer to the mainstream. By the mid-1980s, Chrysler gave turbo four-cylinder engines a big push, mainly because the struggling company did not have a modern naturally aspirated six-cylinder engine for its extended family of front-drive cars. Others followed, and, before long, it seemed half the cars on the road were wearing big “TURBO” decals or badges. Even safety-conscious Volvo was bragging about 0-60 times for its Turbo models.
The precision fuel control of EFI helped make turbos more suited for prime time, and intercoolers allowed higher boost levels for more power. But many drivers didn’t like the turbo lag, and reliability of some could be iffy, especially if oil changes were neglected. The king of American turbos was the 1986–87 Buick Regal Grand National (and its more discrete T-Type sibling). High 13-second quarter-mile times right out of the showroom still weren’t enough to convince some musclecar enthusiasts that there could be a substitute for cubic inches, however.
Fuel injection, the sequel
Before long, EFI helped make naturally aspirated sixes and V-8s more efficient and more powerful, and the turbo trend slowed down. (Turbos did heat up a horsepower race among diesel pickups, though.) Performance in Camaros, Mustangs, Firebirds, and Corvettes had already been on the rise, and EFI gave it another push. Many enthusiasts were mistrustful of the technology, however, and feared they’d be stuck with the factory-set performance level, with the ability to modify made too expensive if not impossible.
The savvy ones figured out that none of that had to be true and began to tinker with their fuel-injected cars. The more persistent tinkerers marketed their tweaks and parts and became wealthy as the aftermarket again boomed, especially for the EFI V-8 Mustang. (Not to mention that there is a hugely rich aftermarket community and culture around turbocharger tuning, which was born out of the Japanese import market with Supras, WRXs, Lancer Evolutions, and so on.)
The factories, of course, responded with ever more powerful muscle cars, and that’s why today’s Mustang, Camaro, Corvette, Challenger, and Charger are the fastest ever to wear those nameplates.
So fear not the coming hybrid Mustang and its ilk. Performance cars of the future will be fun. They’ll just sound different.